Africa continues to slip behind in meeting basic nutritional needs, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for half the deaths of children under the age of five within the developing world. The Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project is a public-private consortium that seeks to use biotechnology to develop a more nutritious and easily digestible sorghum that contains increased levels of essential nutrients, especially lysine, vitamin A, iron and zinc.
Malnutrition is defined as the insufficient, excessive or imbalanced consumption of nutrients. Poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies cause nearly one in three people to die prematurely or have disabilities, according to the World Health Organisation. Malnutrition constitutes a global ‘silent emergency’, killing millions every year and sapping the long-term economic vitality of nations.
Food fortification is the practice of adding micronutrients to foods to ensure that minimum dietary requirements are met. The use of biotechnological methods involves inserting a gene with codes for the nutrients into the seed. This seed is then bred with a high yield quality crop, resulting in the production of crops rich in micronutrients. Agricultural biotechnology methods, and in specific genetic modification, represent therefore a very valuable, complementary strategy for the development of more nutritious crops.
The ABS project has the potential to improve the health of 300 million people by increasing sorghum’s nutritional quality. Sorghum is the fifth most important cereal crop and the main dietary staple for more than 500 million people across the entire developing world. It is the only viable food grain for many of the world’s most food insecure people, and what’s more sorghum is uniquely adapted to Africa’s climate, being both drought resistant and able to withstand periods of water-logging. The potential for sorghum to be the driver of economic development in Africa is enormous.
So far, six successful sets of field trials of nutritionally enhanced sorghum have been conducted in the United States where the sorghum has proven stable and effective over several generations. Greenhouse trials of nutritionally sorghum have been undertaken in South Africa and Kenya. Applications for field trials are in the process of approval in Kenya and Nigeria.
Additionally to the potential health benefits, the ABS project also serves as a model of creative partnerships, bringing together public and private, South / South and North / South organisations. Each partner brings to the table their own particular strengths and helps to create an enabling environment for the use of ABS in Africa, that can be altered and fixed according to the local conditions, cultures and issues encountered in different areas. From Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business that provided the initial technologies for the project, to the national research institutes, technology organisations, policy institutions and universities involved, the project is a successful consortium whose size and diversity mirrors the complexities and extent of the challenges that Africa faces.